“Modern technology has led to the concentration of economic and political power”
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was a philosopher and writer who consistently opposed the industrial and commercial thinking of Western capitalism.
He is best known for his 1931 novel Brave New World, which depicts a dystopic future society built on American-style consumerism.
Writing to his brother Julian in August 1918, Huxley predicted that one of the most deplorable consequences of the First World War would be “the inevitable acceleration of American world domination” and warned repeatedly in the 1920s that “the future of America is the future of the world”. (1)
David Bradshaw writes that the “World State” of Brave New World was clearly conceived “as a satire on the global diffusion of the American way of life”. (2)
Huxley’s future hell does not need the machineries of a violent police state to keep its population under control, because its domination reaches deep inside people’s heads.
As he remarked: “A really efficient totalitarian state would be the one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.
“To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors and school teachers”. (3)
In Huxley’s dystopia, as in our own industrial capitalist world, everything is judged according to its contribution to “economic growth”.
He explains in the novel that at a previous stage of the Brave New World the lower castes of society had been conditioned to like wild flowers and nature – for a very specific reason: “The idea was to make them want to be going out into the country at every available opportunity, and to compel them to consume transport”. (4)
But this conditioning had been dropped because landscapes and flowers lay outside the all-important economy: “A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes”. (5)
The same productivist mentality inspires the imaginary society’s love of games and sports involving lots of complicated equipment.
Reflects one character: “Strange to think that even in Our Ford’s day most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two and a few sticks and perhaps a bit of netting. Imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It’s madness”. (6)
The consumer impulse is etched into each new generation’s minds by recorded voices played over and over again to children in their nurseries: “The voices were adapting future demands to future industrial supply. ‘I do love flying,’ they whispered. ‘ I do love flying. I do love having new clothes’… ‘But old clothes are beastly,’ continued the untiring whisper. ‘We always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending, ending is better than mending, ending is better…'” (7)
This brainwashing takes on a more obviously ideological shape for teenagers, as revealed when the character Lenina insists that “progress is lovely, isn’t it?” and Bernard remarks wearliy: “Five hundred repetitions once a week from thirteen to seventeen”. (8)
For most people in contemporary Western capitalist society, even those who consider themselves dissidents, it seems likewise to be a deeply conditioned self-evident truth that “progress is lovely”.
Those same people often share another of the basic convictions of the Brave New World: that there is no underlying human nature which could allow us to develop freely without the lifelong tight control of authority.
The character Mustapha Mond declares: “As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them”. (9)
Although Huxley’s dystopia is often contrasted with the one put forward by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, deep-down they are not as different as all that – and a hatred of “oldthink” is common to both nightmare regimes.
Huxley imagines a “campaign against the Past” that had involved “the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments (luckily most of them had already been destroyed during the Nine Years’ War); by the suppression of all books published before AF. 150”. (10)
The Brave New World, like the Western industrial-capitalist society which it mocks, is generally opposed to too much thinking and reading. After all: “You can’t consume much if you sit still and read books”. (11)
Books and ideas are regarded as particularly dangerous if they are “old” – that is to say, if they come from an intellectual world beyond the narrow bubble of its own cretinous consumer-conformism.
At one point in the novel, a leader of this society is asked why the work of William Shakespeare has been banned.
“The Controller shrugged his shoulders. ‘Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here’. ‘Even when they’re beautiful?’. ‘Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones'”. (12)
Huxley went on to deepen his anti-Western, anti-capitalist philosophy by exploring the “old” philosophies cast aside by the modern world.
The title of his 1945 work The Perennial Philosophy made this clear enough, and Huxley listed no fewer than three books by Guénon in his bibliography.
As well as exploring the roots of this philosophy, particularly in the East, Huxley applied its ethos to the modern world around him and, unsurprisingly, found that contemporary “wisdom” represented pretty much the opposite of all that is considered of value by the inherited wisdom of humankind.
The cult of technology came under specific attack: “Technological idolatry is the religion whose doctrines are promulgated, explicitly or by implication, in the advertisement pages of our newspapers and magazines – the source, we may add parenthetically, from which millions of men, women and children in the capitalist countries derive their working philosophy of life…
“So whole-hearted is the modern faith in technological idols that (despite all the lessons of mechanized warfare) it is impossible to discover in the popular thinking of our time any trace of the ancient and profoundly realistic doctrine of hubris and inevitable nemesis.
“There is a very general belief that, where gadgets are concerned, we can get something for nothing – can enjoy all the advantages of an elaborate, top-heavy and constantly advancing technology without having to pay for them by any compensating disadvantages”. (13)
For Huxley, as for the tradition he espoused, there was no essential difference between the everyday life of the human being and the cultural or spiritual atmosphere in which he or she lives.
He could see the lack of spirituality in the contemporary world not simply in terms of an abstract over-view, but on an individual level: “The industrial worker at his fool-proof and grace-proof machine does his job in a man-made universe of punctual automata – a universe that lies entirely beyond the pale of Tao on any level, brutal, human or spiritual”. (14)
Huxley urged his readers to turn their backs on the empty folly of modern life and reconnect with a tradition that would be our natural birthright, were it not hidden away from us by those who fear its force: “The reign of violence will never come to an end until, first, most human beings accept the same, true, philosophy of life; until, second, this Perennial Philosophy is recognized as the highest factor common to all the world religions”. (15)
Huxley continued his philosophical assault on industrial civilization in a follow-up commentary on Brave New World published in 1959.
In Brave New World Revisited, he highlighted the dire consequences of continuing on our current course of endless multiplication and economic “growth”, with the spiralling levels of population required to make this possible.
He warned that “this fantastically rapid doubling of our numbers will be taking place on a planet whose most desirable and productive areas are already densely populated, whose soils are being eroded by the frantic efforts of bad farmers to raise more food, and whose easily available mineral capital is being squandered with the reckless extravagance of a drunken sailor getting rid of his accumulated pay”. (16)
Huxley pointed out that our apparently democratic societies were in fact ruled by a “Power Elite” (17) – “modern technology has led to the concentration of economic and political power”. (18)
He also explained how the apparent physical liberty of the individual in contemporary society could be an illusion.
Not only were people fooled into accepting their enslavement, but the meaning of the word “freedom” was twisted so far that it came to mean that same enslavement.
Huxley wrote: “It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison, and yet not free – to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national state, or of some private interest within the nation, wants him to think, feel and act… The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him, the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free”. (19)
He warned of a possible future in which “democracy” and “freedom” would remain the catchwords of the status quo, but in which at the same time “the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained élite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit”. (20)
To prevent this happening, Huxley suggested we should “break up modern society’s vast, machine-like collectives into self-governing, voluntarily co-operating groups, capable of functioning outside the bureaucratic systems of Big Business and Big Government”. (21)
Looking back, in 1946, on his best-known novel, he said if he were to write it again he would provide the protagonists with another choice of society: “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque and co-operative.
“Science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them”. (22)
Video link: Illustrated summary of Huxley’s Brave New World.
1. David Bradshaw, ‘Introduction’, Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: Flamingo, 1994).
3. Aldous Huxley, 1946 Foreword, Brave New World.
4. Huxley, Brave New World, p. 19.
6. Huxley, Brave New World, p. 26.
7. Huxley, Brave New World, p. 43.
8. Huxley, Brave New World, p. 50.
9. Huxley, Brave New World, p. 214.
10. Huxley, Brave New World, p. 45.
11. Huxley, Brave New World, p. 44.
12. Huxley, Brave New World, pp. 199-200.
13. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980), p. 288.
14. Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. 197.
15. Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. 229.
16. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (London: Chatto & Windus, 1959), p. 17.
17. Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, p. 34.
18. Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, p. 35.
19. Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, p. 154.
20. Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, p. 156.
21. Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, p. 159.
22. Huxley, 1946 Foreword, Brave New World.